Young Tiger men look to fill void at guard
Fort Hays State’s backcourt plans took a hit in the preseason, leaving the Tiger men without three of their guards to open the season.
Returning starting point guard Nyjee Wright is out for the first semester after undergoing surgery on a broken foot. Redshirt sophomore guard Gabe Pieschl will also miss extended time with an injury, while Elijah Nnanabu, a freshman guard from Seattle, is required to sit out a year before becoming eligible.
The Tigers, who will open at 7:30 p.m. Thursday against Washburn at Gross Memorial Coliseum, will look for redshirt freshman guard Kaleb Hammeke and true freshman Quinten Rock from Aurora, Colo., to help fill the void at point.
“Kaleb’s very athletic, very tough kid,” FHSU 20-year head coach Mark Johnson said. “Probably more of a natural 2. I think his future in our program, long-term, is a 2 guard, and we’re very excited about Kaleb. He’s going to have to play the point.
“(Rock) can shoot the ball. He’s a fairly thin kid right now, and the physicality of the game is going to be challenge. But as far as quickness and athleticism, we’re improved than what we were before in the backcourt, so that’s going to help us.”
Senior returner Alvin Thompson and Jordan Pumphrey, a junior college transfer, are the only other two true guards on the roster for the Tigers, who are coming off a 14-14 season.
True freshmen Traejon Davis (6-foot 5 forward, Oklahoma City) and Haggan Hilgendorf (6-9 forward, Hastings, Neb.) will also see action this year.
“We’re excited about what the future holds for (the newcomers) and I think they’re going to get great experience this year,” Johnson said. “How well we’ll do early, I don’t know, but I think with this group we’ll go out and compete and we’ll play pretty hard and try to do the right things.
“I think young guys, for whatever reason, are a little bit more prepared to play than they were 20 years ago; I don’t know if it’s the AAU they play and all that ... But I’m counting on them to step in and the play right away and have success.”
Senior forward Jared Vitztum is primed for a big season after averaging 14.6 points and earning third-team All-MIAA honors last year.
With the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, Johnson said the Tigers are taking nothing for granted as they open the season.
“I think we’re all aware that you’re not going to know what’s going to happen, week to week, game to game,” Johnson said. “You need to value the opportunity to go play a game, because you just don’t know how many you’re going to get in. Hopefully everything goes well, but still, it’s a big unknown.”
The Ichabods return four starters off last season's 16-13 squad led by All-MIAA performers Tyler Geiman and Jonny Clausing. Geiman was first-team all-conference last year after averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.5 assist per game. Will McKee will also return in the post after missing most of last season with an injury.
“They play hard, they get after you, and really, you got to defend the 3-point line and not turn it over on your end of the floor,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be able to sprint up the floor with them.”
Attendance for Thursday will be limited to 25% capacity.